From the Roman arena to the Pickle Family, Simon (Emerita, English/Skidmore Coll.; Coco Chanel, 2011, etc.) explores the tropes and stylings of the many-headed creature known as the circus.
When you come down to it, writes the author, the “body as spectacle is the origin of the circus.” She locates that origin, of a performer surrounded by a crowd of spectators, in the Roman arena—not in the gladiator fights or the chariot races but in the light diversion between the carnage: funambulists, tumblers, jugglers and acrobats. The performers eventually branched out, accompanied by dancing turkeys, climbing monkeys and walking dogs, to rites, festivals and fairs, gathering steam and polish as they competed with the theater and opera. As a popular pastime, they would flaunt the wild and subversive, and the clown would emerge from the itinerant troupes of bawdy characters performing pantomimes. Throughout, Simon demonstrates her understanding that circuses are mystical and complex, full of dazzle and escapism, both social and sexual—for who did not want to possess one of those fine bodies on exhibition? In a not-so-surprising turn of events, the upper crust got involved, with nobles taking to the ring and leotard: “The cult of gymnastics, many critics held, was motivated not by a desire to improve health but rather by anxiety over the degeneration of the race, specifically of the wealthy and privileged.” As the author travels back and forth from the intimate one-ring European circuses to the three-ring big top, she plucks out certain elements to highlight: the grand entrances of circuses to towns or cities; the individual feats of the human cannonball, equilibrist, contortionist and stunt riders; and the grift and vulgarity that sparked the sanctimony of the moralists. The book also contains dozens of illuminating photographs that complement the text.
Simon brings a learned hand to this bright history of the circus, which emblazons as it preserves the magic.